Brains and the Spiritual Life

Brains and the Spiritual Life


For many, the development of human reasoning and the flourishing of the scientific method necessarily brought about the decline of religion.  Unfortunately, much of church leadership has been threatened by the discoveries of science and began, centuries ago, a pattern of resistance which has contributed to the thought that reason and religion are mortal enemies.  I wonder how we might be different today if the church had not decided to strong-arm and intimidate Galileo and others who only wanted to study the heavens and publish their findings.  I like to try and imagine a world in which a figure like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is not the exception, but the rule.  In him, love of science and trust of Spirit came together in a union of profound creative energy, stretching the limits of both disciplines of science and religion.

My life’s work is in the discipline of religion.  Though I affirm the flourishing of human reasoning and believe that religion should adopt a humble and welcoming posture toward the discoveries of science, I am coming to see the limitations of reason concerning the things of God.  In her writings and Wisdom Schools, Cynthia Bourgeault uses many teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff to help students learn to find a more stable spiritual awareness within.  Gurdjieff taught that we have three brains or three centers of intelligence—the intellectual center, the emotional center and the moving center.  For Gurdjieff, all three centers must be online in order for us to be awake, spiritually speaking.  Much of spiritual practice, eastern and western, consists of quieting our minds, or our intellectual centers, so that the other two centers can be heard.  What happens when the more subtle energies of bodily sensation and emotional perceptivity begin to come into our awareness?  The witness of contemplative practitioners across the globe and across the centuries is that there is more of us alive to be able to perceive more of the fullness of God.  The only brain that we in the post-Enlightenment west value, the intellectual center, is simply not able to come to an experiential knowledge of God.

We give our culture a false choice.  Choose religion or choose science.  Choose a life of thinking or a life of faith.  As a young man, God knows that my intellectual center needed to grow.  Had I not been blessed with a quality education, I likely would have grown ever more defensive toward inevitable challenges of my worldview.  The experiential knowledge of God which comes to us through our hearts and bodies needs the discipline, critique and maturation which our intellectual center can provide.  Most of the academic world in our culture, however, values only what can be known by our reasoning and logical minds.  There simply is no place for what our hearts and bodies can tell us about God.  As a result, many people for whom their experience of God is a fundamental reality, resist the challenges of the mind that might further their growth.  For many others, religion is jettisoned and significant parts of themselves denied.

Most of my life, I have been seeking to reintegrate the spiritual and intellectual sides of myself.  Naively, I hoped that a life of service and leadership in the church would enable this longed-for integration.  In the mainline denominations, there is little taste for spiritual experience which is seen as emotional or nonrational.  That’s for fundamentalists and evangelicals.  The largely unarticulated agreement of “respectable” churches has been to keep God under wraps.  We decided to cut away parts of ourselves in our practice of religion and to control our experience through our intellectual filters.

The Bible understands how frightening an encounter with the divine is.  Such encounters described within its pages usually leads the human participant into a place of immobilized fear.  Divine messengers seek to assure us poor humans, telling us, “Fear not.”  I remember my awakening to God as a teenager.  I was filled with feelings of gratitude and awe, and, yes, fear.  The feeling is one of not being in complete control, not being the center of the universe.  It disorients our small self.  So, I understand the attempt of the church to tame this encounter.  A domesticated experience of God, however, leaves the soul desolate.

The renewed interest in the contemplative heritage of Christianity signals that, for many, there is a willingness to awaken other aspects of self in order to gain an experience of God which is transformative.  As a Presbyterian pastor, I have been on a slow journey of walking deeper and deeper into contemplative waters and becoming more public about this journey, even inviting other “respectable” people to come along.  I am listening to the heart more and allowing the body to support and ground spiritual practice.  I am exploring the rich heritage of our tradition and the many capable and faithful witnesses whose writings and paths illumine my own faltering attempts to align my life more fully to God.  I don’t know how these attempts will play out over time, but this growing balance between inner and outer work, this effort to bring all three of my brains into the knowing of God is changing my experience of being a pastor, making it more joyful than it has ever been, even without the outer signs which the world counts as success.



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